A new musical called How to Dance in Ohio is making history on Broadway by featuring seven autistic actors in its cast. Based on a 2015 documentary, it follows autistic people learning social skills to attend a spring formal dance. This uplifting real-life story now takes center stage as a shining example of authentic representation.
Behind the scenes, How to Dance in Ohio models inclusive theater practices for autistic and neurodiverse participants. With renowned director Hal Prince tragically passing mid-production, his granddaughter (who is also autistic) helped ensure the show continued embracing the community with care and nuance.
After facing skepticism about finding sufficient autistic musical talent, the creative team was overwhelmed by an abundance of gifted performers. The resulting cast of seven exhibits exceptional diversity in expressing their autism on stage. While each person’s experience is completely unique, common themes around social anxiety, sensory issues, and masking emerge.
By welcoming the actors to incorporate movement and vocalizations natural to their neurology, the production empowers authentic self-expression. The theater itself now also provides special “cool down” rooms and sensory-friendly equipment to make the environment more accessible.
And theatergoers have beautifully reciprocated this progressive representation. Beyond praising the cast’s talent, audiences connect deeply with finally seeing their own stories reflected in well-rounded, humanizing ways. Neurodivergent patrons, especially young people, are moved to encounter role models navigating life’s complexities on stage with insight and humor.
However, the creative team consciously avoids tropes of framing disabled stories as merely “inspirational.” They clarify that autistic individuals face external barriers, not deficiencies innately. If the show impacts some viewers simply as a heartwarming spectacle rather than a lesson in equality, it inadvertently reinforces detrimental assumptions.
While harnessing theater’s immense capacity to build empathy, How to Dance in Ohio also directly educates audiences on ableism. Scenes tackle issues like judgmental misconceptions, patronizing stereotypes, lack of workplace accommodations, and basic rights to self-determination. Yet none of it feels heavy-handed thanks to the charming characters and upbeat tone.
Autistic self-advocates agree this production marks a pivotal cultural moment for awareness. Many believe well-intentioned mainstream stories still gravitate towards tragic angles that ultimately disempower their communities. So having authentic stories of self-discovery finally elevated into a beloved public artform feels like empowering progress.
The autistic consulting director also aspires for the show to inspire future systemic change within the theater world itself. Ideally, casting neurodiverse actors for a wider range of roles will soon become industry norm rather than novelty. Integrating accommodations and casting accessibly should happen organically, not considered extra effort.
Thanks to creative pioneers like How to Dance in Ohio modeling inclusion behind-the-scenes as well as on stage, perhaps one day autistic talent starring in Broadway shows WILL seem a complete non-event. May this magical musical mark just the first bold step in that direction by reflecting neurodiverse lives in all their dynamic authenticity.